BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The University of Wisconsin’s first play from scrimmage in its 45-17 win at Indiana on Saturday served as a sigh of relief for Badgers fans.
Freshman Jonathan Taylor, who entered the day questionable with a left leg injury, burst through a hole on the left side of the line, stiff-armed a defender 15 yards downfield and bounced outside before finally being pushed out of bounds for a 45-yard gain.
He picked up more rushing yards on that carry than UW managed the entire second half without Taylor last week in an ugly win at Illinois. With their star running back healthy Saturday, the ninth-ranked Badgers (9-0, 6-0) scored their highest point total since Week 1 and matched the best start to a season in program history.
“To have him back at 100 percent was definitely noticeable,” UW left tackle Michael Deiter said. "I think the biggest thing was just him having confidence in himself. There were a couple runs last week where you could tell he was a little off.
"To have him just throw it in there and make the plays he does, it’s awesome. It changes the offense."
While Taylor started with a bang and finished with 183 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries, the Badgers’ victory Saturday didn’t come quite as easily as the final score indicates.
Taylor’s 45-yard run led to quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s first red-zone interception this season. From the 6-yard line, Indiana defensive tackle Jacob Robinson hit Hornibrook from his blind side as he released a pass, sending the ball off course and into the hands of linebacker Tegray Scales in the end zone.
“I thought it would have been a touchdown to Quintez (Cephus) in the back of the end zone,” Hornibrook said. "It was either him or nobody. I was going to throw it up to him. … I was looking all to the left side. I wasn’t seeing anything behind me so I didn’t think (Robinson) was coming."
The Hoosiers (3-6, 0-6) turned that into an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that included two third-down conversions and a blown coverage on a 23-yard scoring toss from quarterback Richard Lagow to running back Devonte Williams.
After a sack forced a three-and-out for UW, Indiana drove down the field again but settled for a 26-yard field goal to take a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter.
The Hoosiers then threatened to create another three-and-out, but Hornibrook connected with A.J. Taylor for a 32-yard gain on third-and-8 from the Badgers’ 29-yard line. He converted another third down on a 16-yard throw to Cephus later in the drive, one play before hitting fullback Alec Ingold for an 18-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 10-7.
UW succeeded on seven of its final 12 third downs beginning with that drive, and six of those seven conversions came on touchdown drives.
“That was big,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. "Certainly, Alex got off to a, you don’t want to have that (INT) be (your first drive) … and yet I think he does a good job of just kind of staying with it. Any time that you convert on third down, those are huge."
Hornibrook finished 13-of-20 passing for 158 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. His second score came after a momentum-shifting play by UW’s defense with 7 minutes, 2 seconds left in the first half.
Outside linebacker Tyler Johnson ripped the ball away from Indiana running back Morgan Ellison, his second forced fumble in as many weeks. Joe Ferguson recovered on the Hoosiers’ 21-yard line, and a penalty on Indiana gave UW the ball on the 11.
Two plays later, Cephus ran a fade route and snatched an 8-yard touchdown catch over the head of Indiana’s Tony Fields to give the Badgers their first lead.
"Indiana came out really strong. They put it on us a little bit in the beginning,” Johnson said. "You never expect to show up at somebody’s place and for them to just roll over for you. I thought if I could do something to get the momentum back on our side, it would be really helpful."
Taylor took over for stretches of the second half. He carried the ball seven times for 35 yards on the first drive of the third quarter, which led to a 21-yard field goal, and he scored on a 32-yard run the next time out to give UW a 24-10 advantage.
"Coming into this game, I felt great,” Taylor said. "Definitely was 100 percent confident in how I was feeling."
Indiana cut it back to a one-score game when Lagow completed a 17-yard touchdown pass to Simmie Cobbs Jr. with 4:12 left in the third quarter, but two straight interceptions from Badgers safety Joe Ferguson in Hoosiers territory led to two 1-yard touchdowns from Ingold to put the game out of reach at 38-17. Bradrick Shaw added another 1-yard score with 2:19 remaining.
UW did leave Saturday with injury concerns to Cephus (right leg), inside linebacker Chris Orr (left leg) and safety D’Cota Dixon (right leg), but Taylor’s return kicked UW’s offense up a notch and gave the Badgers an opportunity for their first-ever 10-0 start when they host Iowa next week at Camp Randall Stadium.
"He knows that he can still get better,” Chryst said of Taylor. "I don’t think he feels at all like he’s arrived. I think it’s a really good fit with this team."